• Published 21st May 2012
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Mantles - Ponky



Studying in Canterlot, Apple Bloom dons a mask of her youth to counter the city's rising crime.

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7 - That Makes Them Special

CHAPTER SEVEN
THAT MAKES THEM SPECIAL

The captain of the Royal Guard galloped through the cavernous castle halls. For a brief moment—and only a brief moment—he remembered back to when those halls were full of life and bustle, when dozens if not hundreds of visiting ponies trotted through the palace to admire its architecture, collections of ancient fine art, and dazzling stained-glass windows glorifying significant events of Equestrian history. He remembered the glimmer of hope in their eyes that a Princess might make their acquaintance around every corner, and the way they bowed and beamed and drooled when Celestia or Luna indeed the took time to greet them.

His memories were cast aside for the morning’s task at hoof. The metallic clashes of his horseshoes against the granite floors thundered to the vaulted ceiling. Thick curtains covered all the colored windows, making dim his path to the throne room.

He wasted no time with pleasantries, storming past the appointed guards to buck open a heavy set of enormous double doors. The unexpected brightness of the hallowed chamber seared the captain’s open pupils. He lifted a hoof to shade his eyes and peered through the tingling whiteness. A tall, violet pony was hunched at a narrow opening in the wall, aiming her horn at the eastern horizon and shivering with painful effort.

“Princess Sparkle!” he called across the room, sprinting its length to her side. Though her glowing eyes were as wide as could be, her teeth were clenched together.

Help—me—” she managed to growl between her strained grimace.

The captain complied, pressing the tip of his pure white horn against hers. It crackled and sparked, radiating nigh unbearable amounts of heat and light, but he ignored the magic’s dangerous residue. With the captain’s concentration added to her spell, Twilight Sparkle pumped a mighty burst through her spindly horn and the Sun finally broke the horizon. As it assumed its natural path across the sky, Twilight released her spell and crumpled to the floor with an exhausted whimper.

“Princess! Are you all right?” the blue-maned stallion asked, hesitant to help the winded princess to her hooves.

“I thought… it would get… easier…” she mumbled between rattling inhalations.

He waited for Twilight to regain herself and jumped at the sudden noise of the throne room doors slamming shut. He turned to see Twilight’s rosy aura of magic vanish from around them. One bright flash later, the Princess had teleported into her throne and was waiting with regal posture.

“Your report, Captain?” she asked without looking his way.

“Er… what?”

“Your report. Did you not come here to report?”

“Oh… oh! Yes, of course.”

He left the stony windowsill at a quick gait and knelt before her throne.

“Impressive stamina for a stallion your age,” she remarked. He wasn’t sure if she was referring to his activity around the throne room or his help raising the Sun. “I am glad for it,” she continued. Her voice was cold and multi-layered, but the captain had heard it enough not to shiver. “Replacing you after all these years would certainly prove difficult. What urgent news have you to report this morning, Shining Armor?”

“My Princess,” he began without rising from his bow, speaking into the ground, “the Guard has received word that a stowaway leapt from the train near Ponyville last night.”

Twilight Sparkle’s slanted eyes illuminated with wrath. “What!? Did they survive?”

“There is an undercover squadron investigating as we speak,” he reported.

An angry snort blasted from her nostrils. “Was the jumper identified?”

“I’m afraid not, Princess,” Shining Armor admitted. “The stallion who tried to apprehend the subject described her as an adult female with a strong southern accent.”

As her eyes lost their glow, they narrowed suspiciously. “I see. Bring me the stallion who failed to detain her.”

“I will escort him to your presence as soon as he is able,” he said with a quaver of hesitation.

“What’s stopping him?”

Shining Armor cleared his throat. “The jumper broke several of his ribs, Princess. He’s undergoing surgery this morning.”

“That shouldn’t take long,” Twilight acknowledged. “I expect to see him before noon today.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Shining Armor promised, nodding in his bow.

Another long silence deadened the room, revealing to Shining Armor an obnoxious ring deep in his ears left over from the whine of the Princess’s magic.

“Permission to speak freely,” he requested.

Twilight shifted a little. “Of course, brother.”

He finally rose from his long show of respect with a worried expression fixed over his face. “I thought you said your ability was improving.”

“It is. Usually.” Twilight ran a nervous hoof through her ethereally flowing mane of purple, pink, and midnight blue. “Lowering the bodies is simple, and raising the Moon has gotten much easier. It’s just the Sun that gives me trouble.”

Shining Armor knew better than to argue. “Do you think it would be wise to keep me close?” he suggested. “Unless you know of another unicorn whose love will boost your spell, having me around in the mornings as a backup may prove beneficial.”

Twilight scowled. “If you had given me a few more minutes, I could have completed the rise on my own.”

He wanted to remind her that she had asked for his help, but moved on to his next question.

“Do you have any intuitions on the identity of our jumper?”

Twilight flicked her wings. “Not solidly enough to accuse anypony, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she belonged to the Apple Family.”

His brow furrowed. “What would Applejack be doing on the train?”

Twilight shook her head. “Let’s wait for the squadron’s investigation. Their evidence is sure to be enlightening.”

A single nod represented his silent agreement and the Princess excused him to his duties. The castle was just as empty traveling in the other direction, and Shining Armor couldn’t help but pay extra attention to the streaks of Sunlight slashing across the ground.

Ever since her rise to power, Shining Armor had refused to doubt his sister. She was acting on what she knew was right. Even so, her struggle to fulfill the old Princesses’ duties had not improved in years. He hated to dwell on the thought, but… what would happen if, one day, Equestria’s only Princess couldn’t raise the Sun?

(/\/\)

WHAM!

“Apple Bloom, darling, you look positively dreadful! What happened?”

“She jumped off the train, Rarity. Give ‘er a little space, would’ja? Clearly she’s in no position to rightly explain herself just yet.”

“Oh, my… w-will she be all right, Doctor?”

“No need to worry, Miss Fluttershy. We’ve cleaned her out and stitched her up. I’m sure she’ll be back on her hooves this time tomorrow. For now we just need to be patient while she gets a little rest.”

POW!

“Apple Bloom! Can ya hear me, Bloom? Come on, you stupid filly, wiggle your ears or something!”

“I think you may have missed the doctor’s call for patience, Scootaloo.”

“Shut up, Rarity. What are you even doing here?”

“My word! Young lady, I understand the situation is stressful, but that’s no reason to show such disrespect.”

THUMP!

“And to answer your outrageous question, I am here on account of my dear friend’s unexpected return and subsequent injury.”

“Your dear friend? Ha! She’s as much your friend as I am. You never gave us the time of day when we were fillies.”

“Now I reckon that’s quite enough, Scootaloo.”

“What kind of sister are you, anyway, trying to fix her up yourself? If Fluttershy hadn’t convinced you to take her to the hospital—”

“Oh my…”

“—Apple Bloom might have DIED!”

FWAP!

“Who in thunderation do you think you are, tellin’ me how t’take care o’ my sister?”

“You didn’t take her to the hospital right away? Applejack, you should know better than that!”

“Don’t you DARE start counselin’ ME on sisterhood, Rarity!”

“Girls, please… I think Apple Bloom is…”

BLAM!

“I learned my lesson when—”

“—bunch of stupid, mushy—”

“—ain’t got no experience—”

“—and you DARE to indict me—”

“EVERYPONY SHUT UP!”

BOOM!

The bucking bag snapped from its post. Apple Bloom’s powerful kick sent it spinning wildly through the air. It slammed into an apple tree hard enough to leave a long, smooth impression in the bark.

Sucking in breaths through gritted teeth, Apple Bloom wiped a bit of spittle from the corner of her mouth. Nothing was as relieving or distracting as setting up a bucking bag in the far corner of Sweet Apple Acres and putting her hard-earned karate skills to work.

“Everypony just shut up,” she said under her breath, just as she had at the hospital three days before. “I got somethin’ to tell y’all.”

She sighed and shuffled to the fallen bag, taking it by the chain in her teeth. The most important link had broken. There was no way to hang it up now.

After staring at the useless bag for a while, Apple Bloom left the Acres for town. There were more bags to beat up at the local gym.

Ponyville had grown desolate over the last few days. Apple Bloom’s hospital audience had slowly, gravely spread the word about Twilight, Canterlot, Ponyville’s secession, and Harper’s murder. Nopony knew quite how to react and turned to quiet confusion and sorrow. So there she was, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, alone in the old dirt roads as if Zecoraphobia had returned.

Zecora. Even in her emotional depths, Apple Bloom couldn’t help but smile as she thought of the old zebra. The town had never been the same since she passed away. Apple Bloom added ‘Visit Zecora's hut’ to her mental checklist of things to do in Ponyville. Right after ‘Visit Lyra’. That was a conversation she wasn’t looking forward to. All the same, she’d have to get it over with sooner than later. She didn’t plan on staying in Ponyville for very long; Sweetie Belle’s plea still rung in her head.

You have to FIX SOMETHING!

“How?” she asked herself as she reached the Ponyville gym. “What’s left to fix?”

The gym was almost void of patrons. Apple Bloom trotted past the front desk to the dojo at the back of the building, passing only an enormous white pegasus lifting large weights with his forelegs. From his expression, she guessed he had already heard the news and weightlifted to cope. It seemed to be his special talent.

As she had hoped, the dojo was unoccupied. She sat in the center of its dull red flooring, admiring the Ma Tuo Di décor and remembering her old experiences between those paper walls.

On her very first visit to the dojo she was accompanied by Rainbow Dash. They didn’t stay for very long. As soon as Rainbow decided karate wasn’t Apple Bloom’s special talent, she dragged her back to Sweet Apple Acres to try her luck at kite flying. Those few minutes had struck a chord in Apple Bloom, however, and she returned to the dojo on her own several times in an attempt to improve her skills.

Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed. One day, after Cheerilee dismissed her students, Rainbow Dash caught Apple Bloom outside the schoolhouse.

“I heard you’ve been going back to the gym pretty often,” she began, backstroking through the air. “Still trying to get that karate Cutie Mark, huh?”

“Not really,” Apple Bloom had answered. “I just think it’s fun, kickin’ stuff ‘n’all.”

“Whoa, kid,” Rainbow said, landing in front of her. “Karate isn’t just about kicking stuff. It’s about discipline—” She stuck out her chest and raised one hoof off the ground.

“—control—”

She slashed her hoof just above Apple Bloom’s head, grazing the filly’s bow and making her gasp.

“—and awesomeness!”

With a mighty flap of her sky blue wings, she leapt high into the air and flipped backward twice. Her spiraling tail left a streak of every color and she landed on the ground so hard the pebbles nearest her scattered over the road.

Apple Bloom’s mouth hung open. Nearby, Scootaloo’s eyes threatened to pop out of her skull.

“Will ya teach me, Rainbow Dash?” Apple Bloom begged, scurrying up the brazen pegasus. “Maybe karate ain’t my special talent, but I love it to pieces all the same! Please, Rainbow Dash, can we try karate lessons again? I gotta get better at it, I just gotta!”

“Take it easy, Bloom,” Rainbow laughed. “Sure I’ll help ya out. But if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it right. That means you follow my orders on my schedule. Got it?”

Apple Bloom had nodded vigorously, flopping her bow.

“Good.”

All these years later, Apple Bloom was just as skilled as Rainbow Dash had ever been. Maybe even better.

Filled with a sudden burst of pride, Apple Bloom leapt from the center of the dojo and attacked the nearest bucking bag. Her forehooves jabbed at its painted red X at blurring speeds. One spinning kick to its side rattled the overhead chain. Satisfied by an imaginary knock-out, the limber mare hurled herself across the room with a loud “Hiya!” and delivered a shattering kick to her next opponent.

Twenty minutes passed before Apple Bloom collapsed, panting harder than Winona on a cattle round-up day.

“YEEAAH!” somepony shouted from the dojo’s entrance. She whipped her head toward the voice, surprised to see the large, white pegasus stallion beaming down at her.

“Yeah what?” she asked between deep breaths.

“That was amazing!” he said in a rough, deep voice. “You’ve got a lot of moves for such a little pony.”

Apple Bloom chuckled. “How long have you been standin’ there?”

“About ten minutes,” he said, stepping into the dojo. “You sure were focused. Sorry if I’m… interrupting.” His expression twisted and he started to back away.

“No, it’s fine, really!” Apple Bloom said. “Tell ya th’truth, I could use a nice conversation. Things ain’t seemed too friendly since I came back to Ponyville.”

The stallion smiled. It almost looked funny above his bulky jaw, but Apple Bloom could see the sincerity in his bright red eyes.

“You’re an Apple, right?” he asked. “I mean, the Apple Family, not… not actually an apple.”

She laughed loud and full. “I knew whatcha meant. And yessir, I am a proud member of the Apple Family. Name’s Apple Bloom.”

“I’m Bulk Biceps,” he greeted, trotting onto the dojo’s flooring and sitting on his haunches near the mare. She forced her tired limbs to lift her into a similar position.

Bulk cleared his throat before asking, “Aren’t you the one who came back from Canterlot a few days ago?”

Apple Bloom sighed. “Yeah, that was me. And I brought all the bad news with me. I’m sorry, Bulk Biceps, but I’d really rather not talk about all that.”

He nodded. “That’s fine. I don’t really want to talk about it either.” His eyes widened. “But I do want to know where you learned to fight like that.”

“It ain’t fightin’, really,” she said. “Just martial arts. I’ve never used it to hurt nopony. Well, other than Scootaloo.” She snickered. “And I guess I sparred with Rainbow Dash back when she was teachin’ me.”

Bulk gasped. “Rainbow Dash taught you all that?”

“Yeah! Did you know her?”

"Who didn’t know Rainbow Dash? I got to work with her when Ponyville provided the water for Cloudsdale’s weather factory, and later we were on a relay team for the Equestrian Games. When was all that, more than ten years ago?” He sighed. “Still some of the best experiences of my life.”

“Really?” Apple Bloom smiled with curiosity. “Why’s that?”

Snowflake’s eyes swept over the ground. “Well… I’ve never been a great flier,” he started, wiggling his tiny wings, “and ponies used to tease me about my size a lot when I was young. For the longest time, I felt like… I felt like I wasn’t making any difference, you know? My special talent was body-building, but who cares about that? How could I use that to help anyone in Ponyville?”

His frown switched directions as his eyes began to sparkle.

“And then Rainbow Dash came to me one day and told me about her plans to break Fillydelphia’s wingpower record. She said she needed somepony to help train the pegasi and bring up their strength. She called me ‘just the stallion for the job’. I’ve never felt so… so special, you know? Those few days training for the tornado were heaven for me. I was always so excited. I got to use what I know to help somepony else. And even though we didn’t break the record like Dash wanted, she took the time—actually, a lot of ponies took the time—to personally thank me for my help when it was all over.”

His grin was contagious. Apple Bloom couldn’t help but feel warmed by the story.

“That’s great, Bulk Biceps. Really it is,” she said. “There’s nothin’ quite like usin’ yer special talent to help other ponies, is there?”

“No, ma’am, there’s not,” he agreed. “What about you? Is your special talent karate?”

“No way,” Apple Bloom said. “I guess I’m pretty good at it, but not natural like I am at paintin’. I had to dedicate a lot o’ time to karate before I got anywhere. In fact, at one point I was practicin’ so much that it leaked into every other corner o’ my life, even the school talent show!”

Bulk raised a hoof. “I remember that! Gosh, you were a lot littler back then. My son was in your class, if I remember right.”

Apple Bloom blinked. “Really? Who’s yer son?”

“His name’s Featherweight,” Bulk said.

Apple Bloom gasped. “Yer Featherweight’s dad? We worked with him on the Foal Free Press! He was a great editor, y’know. Much better than Diamond Tiara.”

The compliment made Bulk smile again. “I’ll tell him you said that. He always loved that paper.” He put his little hoof to his burly chin. “If I remember right, there were three of you in that talent show. What’d you call yourselves? Cutie Mark and the Funky Bunch, something like that?”

“The Cutie Mark Crusaders,” she corrected proudly.

“Oh, yeah! Did they take karate lessons from Rainbow Dash, too?”

“Nah, neither of ‘em caught onto it like I did. Both of ‘em came to a couple lessons here and there, but it just didn’t click for ‘em. I stuck with it, though. Earned my black belt before Rainbow moved away.”

“Wow! That’s really impress—”

A loud clap of thunder shook the walls of the dojo, jolting both ponies to their hooves.

“Yikes,” Apple Bloom muttered. “I didn’t know they planned a thunderstorm.”

“I completely forgot,” Bulk said, biting his lip. “I better head home before the rain gets too bad.” He offered a hoof. “It was really good to meet you here, Apple Bloom.”

“You, too, Bulk Biceps,” she agreed, bumping her hoof against his. “Say hi t’Featherweight for me.”

“Will do.” He hurried toward the front of the gym out of Apple Bloom’s sight.

She trotted laps around the room to slow her heartbeat, still hammering from her karate. By the time she left the gym, heavy sheets of rain were pouring from the dark clouds overhead. The walk back to the Acres would not be a fun one…

Or even a possible one. The storm was getting worse and worse with every passing second. Lightning struck near the Everfree Forest. Apple Bloom had to close her eyes against the whipping wind and stinging rain, briefly taking shelter beneath a small tree to gather her bearings.

The nearest and most familiar building was Carousel Boutique and Apple Bloom sprinted to its door. She let the rain clean the mud from her hooves before bursting through the purple door of the decorative establishment.

“Welcome to Carousel Boutique,” a familiar voice chimed, “where every garment is… Apple Bloom?”

The pony in question smiled weakly beneath her dripping mane. “Hi, Rarity.”

“Apple Bloom, you poor darling! Here, let me fetch you a towel.”

A few minutes later, the farmpony was wrapped up in a warm blanket, sitting on her haunches while Rarity ran a brush through her damp mane.

“Honestly, Scootaloo has been organizing the strangest bouts of weather lately,” Rarity complained. “Why, just last week she had a tornado along the border of the Everfree. A tornado! Can you believe it?”

“Well, uh… yeah,” Apple Bloom admitted. “She’s always been like that.”

“Like what? Wild? Destructive? Hmph. I seem to remember Rainbow Dash handling the weather much differently.”

They were both silent for a moment while Rarity’s features softened.

“Actually, Apple Bloom, I… I’ve been meaning to talk to you about… what Scootaloo said at the hospital.”

“I’m real sorry about that, Rarity,” she said. “Scoots was sayin’ all sorts o’ mean things to y’all. I think she was just worried about me.”

“As we all were, darling, but that’s not what I meant. You see… she was right. When you two and Sweetie Belle spent all your time conquering for Cutie Marks—”

“Crusadin’.”

“—I’m afraid I was often rather distant. I’d even go so far to call myself snobbish at the time. And I want to make sure you know how sorry I am for that. All three of you have grown into fine young mares and I should have taken the time to befriend you all back when life was…”

“Friendlier?”

“Different,” Rarity chose, though she chortled at Apple Bloom’s suggestion. “There we are, not a tangle left,” she said, levitating the brush to a nearby tabletop. “Now, how to style it…”

Apple Bloom leapt from the blanket and turned to face Rarity with a forced smile. “It’s fine. Really, I like it just like this. No stylin’ necessary.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow but shrugged in the end. “There was a time when I would press you on this, Apple Bloom, but if you’re anything like your sister I know you’ll never give in.” With an amiable smirk, Rarity lifted the blanket and folded it with her magic. Keeping it afloat by her side, she made her way to the laundry room and left Apple Bloom in the main lobby.

She pushed around a couple locks of her straightened mane and checked herself in one of the Boutique’s many mirrors. The glass contained a sad, bruised pony who looked as lost and hopeless as was equinely possible, though perhaps that was largely thanks to her hair…

“Hey, Rarity?” she called out.

“Yes, dear?”

“If you were gonna do somethin’ with my mane, what would it be?”

The hesitance in her voice was contrasted by Rarity’s sparkling tone.

“Why, I could do anything!” she exclaimed, whisking back to Apple Bloom. “You have a very thick mane, darling, but it’s easy enough to style. I could braid it, like your sister’s at the Gala all those years ago! Or I could crimp it, I think the color would accentuate that nicely…” She gasped. “Or I could curl it like mine! Not exactly like mine, mind you, I have much thinner hair, but if we trimmed it into a V-shape and ironed the end—”

“Whoa now! I didn’t say nothin’ about cuttin’ it,” Apple Bloom stopped her. “I was just curious, that’s all.”

Rarity clicked her tongue in disappointment but didn’t turn away. Eventually, a gentle smile graced her lips. “You know, if you were to let me style it, I might just dig out that old pink bow of yours and see how it looks today.”

Apple Bloom’s eyes widened. “Sweetie Belle told me you kept that. Do ya still have it?”

“But of course!” Rarity declared, lifting a hoof in a self-satisfied pose. “I keep every important garment, darling.”

“She mentioned that, too,” Apple Bloom remembered. “She said you had some kind o’… clothing scrapbook?”

Rarity’s eyebrows tilted in confusion but she quickly laughed it off. “Well, yes, I suppose it is something like a scrapbook based on meaningful articles of clothing. Although it’s much less of a scrapbook as it is a scrapnook.”

“Huh?”

“It’s in my attic,” she explained, pointing above their heads. “I’ve been adding to it since my fillyhood. There’s quite a collection up there now.”

Apple Bloom bit her lip. “D’ya think I could take a look?” she asked.

Rarity’s eyes glistened. “Do you mean it? Would you really like to?”

“Sure,” said the earth pony with a shrug. “All I’ve got now is wispy mem'ries. Wouldn’t hurt to see some hard proof that those good times really happened.”

Rarity squealed with delight, pattering her front hooves against the ground. “Oh, how wonderful! Nopony’s ever been interested in my collection before! You’re going to love it, Apple Bloom, simply love it!” She continued to squeak and giggle as she hurried to the Carousel’s staircase. Apple Bloom followed slowly, amused at the older mare’s energy.

“Come now, darling, it’s above my bedroom,” she directed, opening an overhead trapdoor with her magic. A staircase folded open on its own, leading into the darkness beyond the ceiling.

“It looks creepy,” Apple Bloom noted, chasing Rarity up the steps.

“Far from, my dear,” Rarity assured her. “If anything, it’s creative.”

With a flash of her horn, several candles on the circular wall ignited. They cast a warm glow on a number of shrine-like arrangements that covered nearly every square yard of the attic’s wooden floor. Apple Bloom gasped as the trapdoor closed.

“Well?” Rarity asked. “What do you think of my masterpiece?”

The room was veritable a maze of clothes. A narrow walkway cut between neatly piled stacks, fully dressed ponnequins, and mounted displays. Nearest to the pair of ponies were five small costumes of sweets and flowers, decorated with glittering jewels.

“Rarity… are those the costumes you made when ya got yer Cutie Mark?”

“They most certainly are,” Rarity confirmed, smiling at the fateful outfits. “You see that leafy yellow one? Your old teacher Cheerilee wore that in the play.”

A hoot of laughter burst from Apple Bloom. “Cheerliee wore that?”

“Don’t be too harsh. I designed it, after all.”

Apple Bloom kept giggling as she moved along the walkway, trying to imagine Cheerilee as a filly. In a froofy yellow costume.

“Recognize that one?” Rarity asked, pointing a hoof toward an organized display hanging on the rounded wall. It featured three crudely sewn red capes, each emblazoned with a blue shield bearing a rearing yellow filly. Above one cape hung a purple and white helmet; above another, a poster for the Sisterhooves Social; and the third…

Apple Bloom’s next breath caught in her throat. “Is… that my bow?” she asked in a high-pitched voice.

Rarity only had to smile for Apple Bloom’s eyes to brim with tears.

“Oh my gosh,” she whispered. “That thing is huge! Why did I ever wear that on my tiny little head?”

“Because it was adorable!” Rarity said after a hearty laugh. “Honestly, you three were the cutest fillies Ponyville has ever seen, nonpareil.”

She could have stared at that symbol of the Cutie Mark Crusaders for the rest of the night, but the room was so full of other nostalgic displays that she forced herself to turn away and admire the extent of Rarity’s work.

There were the Elements’ Gala dresses (both versions, though the hideous ones were tucked behind their original counterparts); there were the gem-coated costume changes for Sapphire Shores, sparkling even in the dim candlelight; there were the various Winter Wrap Up vests from every year since Rarity’s commission.

Most of the outfits, however, were ensembles that Apple Bloom didn’t recognize. A random assortment of balloons surrounding a green gift box caught her eye, as did an insect-like get-up of purple, yellow, and pink. Near the latter, Rarity had posted a plaque with the words “Keep Your Hooves on the Ground,” but Apple Bloom was too distracted by other unusual outfits to ask about it.

Her hooves carried her through the maze as if in a dream. She slowly swiveled her head left and right, taking in as many of the memories as possible. Of all the various articles, the most recurring seemed to be giant hats. Some were tall and stiff, others colorful and floppy, and one in the least lit bend of the wall—

Apple Bloom’s heart seemed to stop with her hooves.

“Rarity,” she nearly whispered. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Hm?” Rarity stepped up beside Apple Bloom, following her line of vision. “Ah! Well, I assume so, though I’m no mind reader. What do you think it is?”

She grinned as Apple Bloom resumed a slow, absentminded gait toward the ponnequin in question.

“I didn’t know you kept it,” she muttered.

“Just the one,” Rarity expounded, staying alongside her hypnotized companion. “There were four of them, you know, but this is the only costume I kept. I believe it was your sister’s.”

Apple Bloom’s tongue felt like cotton in her mouth. Her eyes had dried and widened with every step. Less than a ponylength from the iconic outfit, she stopped and stared in stunned silence.

“Do you remember why I made it?” Rarity asked.

Apple Bloom nodded. “Rainbow was bein’ an idiot.”

Rarity’s laugh did nothing to crack Apple Bloom’s rapt attention.

“That’s one way of putting it,” Rarity admitted, “though I would use more descriptive terms. Our dear Rainbow Dash, as talented and helpful as she often is, had finally let her popularity go to her head. Her famed loyalty had repositioned itself around her want of attention, rather than the ponies she professed to be serving.

“We knew what must be done. ‘We’ being her fellow Elements of Harmony, of course. You see, Apple Bloom, when someone you love falls into this sort of state—be it arrogance or stubbornness, or even depression—you find yourself willing to do everything in your power to restore them back to the pony they used to be. Sometimes, depending on the situation’s gravity, necessary actions can become quite… dramatic.”

Apple Bloom’s breath was beginning to quicken.

“Our friend had fallen to a pony’s oldest enemy: pride. I will confess, I too have struggled with that most flattering of foes, and so I was determined with all the more fervor to snap Rainbow out of her obtrusive condition. It was with this goal that my friends and I devised the perfect plan. To uproot the misguided hero in Rainbow Dash’s soul, we would become her competition. To overcome her hubris, we would become her humiliation. To revert her negative changes, we would remind her of herself.”

She sighed. “As you saw—as all of Ponyville saw—our plan took place with fabulous results. We got our Rainbow back, and established a number of valuable lessons in the process. A hero’s job is to protect, no matter what obstacles, inner or outer, she may be forced to face.”

Quite pleased with her monologue, Rarity waited for Apple Bloom to respond. After too many seconds of silence, she turned and gasped at the tears dripping down her tensed cheeks.

“Apple Bloom, darling, are you all right?” she asked, placing a caring hoof on her shoulder.

Pulsing with purpose, Apple Bloom reached her own hoof toward the purple figure. She lifted the broad-brimmed hat from the ponnequin and held it before her amber eyes. The patter of raindrops against the roof became the empowering rhythm of a snare drum leading an army into battle—an army of one in the Battle for Equestria.

“Yes, Rarity,” she said in a low, even voice. She spun the hat around her hoof and slid it carefully over her ears. “I’m doin’… very well.

(/\/\)

Applejack jumped as her front door slammed open.

“What in tarnation!?” she yelled through the house, thundering down the stairs to the front room. “I realize there’s a storm a-brewin’, but that don’t give nopony an excuse to come bargin’ through my—”

She skidded to a halt at the bottom of the stairs and stared at the familiar figure looming in the doorway.

“M-M… Mare Do Well?” she stuttered.

The pony grinned behind her mask. “Hey, Sis. You know how you’re always tellin’ me to start wearin’ a hat?”